Beware the Use of “OER”

September 24, 2015 by

It’s time to bite the bullet. I’ve talked and written about the differences between Open Access, open source, and OER. I’ve said that the Open Access movement concerns free publications – journals or texts.  I’ve said that open source concerns free software. And I’ve said that UNESCO introduced the term OER more than a decade ago, and currently displays the following definition on their website:

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them. OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation.  (Citation

This definition is almost identical to the original 10+ year old definition. Note the use of the word “freely.”  They don’t say that OERs are cost-free.  But when you find something on the Web, and when those somethings display an “open license,” usually Creative Commons, you can see whether or not there’s a cost associated with your reuse of the something.

But, the practical reality of the definition of the word “freely” has evolved dramatically since UNESCO’s original definition.  Today, more than a decade later, and despite the vagueness of the meaning of the word “freely,” the operational definition of OER  is that this word has come to mean no cost.  That is, most everyone who uses or sees an OER today assumes that it’s completely free of cost. But it isn’t necessarily so. But where does that leave us?

Unfortunately, while most of the time OERs are free, from time to time they are not.  In MERLOT, we do not call our collection an OER collection.   That’s because there are some things in the collection that are not free of cost.  Mostly they’re there because they are really good; instructors, librarians and student should know about them.  So the materials are in the collection – with the notation that there is a cost associated with them.  But when you find things elsewhere that claim to be OERs, the situation is different.  Without a proper license, it’s buyer beware.  Misuse of a material that does have cost information associated with its reuse could have a cost for misuse later!

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The Pro’s and Con’s of Open Education

June 30, 2015 by

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Normally I wouldn’t promote a for-profit company when writing about OER, which by some people’s definitions means totally and absolutely free.  But sometimes something will come across my desk from one of those “evil” for-profits that is so good that I feel I just have to share it with our community.  The most recent example of this is an infographic entitled Wide Open Spaces: The Pros and Cons of Open Education from

This infographic, complete with citations, provides an interesting graphical perspective on topics described by its title.  I’m including the top screen of the infographic here, but urge you to link to it and view/read it in its entirety.

Also, from time to time members of the MERLOT community, myself included, add learning materials to the MERLOT collection that do in fact cost money.  We allow them and we add them because we feel that sometimes you just have to spend a little money to get the best. Whenever there is a cost involved, it is noted in MERLOT. So if you have your own learning materials or use others that are not in MERLOT, we encourage you to add them to the MERLOT collection to share with others.

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Onward and Upward: JOLT merges with OLJ

May 4, 2015 by

It’s sad to see an old friend go, especially one that you have become very fond of over the years. On the other hand sometimes you have to let friends go if their departure means bigger and better things for them.  So it is with our old friend JOLT – the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.

The second issue of 2015 of JOLT that will be published in June will be MERLOT’s final issue. On the one hand, while we are sad to be giving up this pioneering Open Access, peer-reviewed publication that has been part of the MERLOT family for almost 10 years, we are delighted and proud that JOLT will be merged with the Online Learning Consortium’s Online Learning Journal (formerly JALN).

You may already be aware of MERLOT’s and OLC’s joint sponsorship of the annual Emerging Technologies for Online Learning International Symposium (ET4Online). This new merger will broaden the cooperative efforts between our organizations.  The new journal will integrate editorial staffs and retain the name Online Learning Journal (OLJ).  We anticipate that the combined efforts will extend reach, improve quality, and result in increased efficiencies for both OLC and MERLOT.

So while we at MERLOT will still retain the archives of all previously published JOLT articles, all new submissions and publications of OLJ will be maintained by OLC.  OLJ will also be an Open Access publication.

The MERLOT staff greatly appreciates all the work that has been done by so many volunteers over the years, to invent JOLT and to make it the success it became.  And we intend to work together with our good friends at OLC to continue our efforts with the Online Learning Journal.

For more information on the merger or to submit a manuscript to OLJ, visit their site at

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OER 2.0? Not Yet

March 9, 2015 by

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A few weeks ago I and the MERLOT management team joined about 300 other people and attended the Textbook Affordability Conference (TAC) in San Diego. If you haven’t visited San Diego, it’s probably one of the nicest cities in the country, and it should be on your bucket list.

This conference was the first of its kind, and there are more like it planned starting later this year.  TAC was sponsored by a number of textbook publishers, college bookstores in the University of California System, the California Community Colleges System, the California State University System, and other government agencies. It was different than most conferences because all the sessions were sequential – no parallel sessions. This gave us an opportunity to hear from all the speakers at the conference over the 2-days of sessions. Given the title of the conference it’s no surprise that most of the speakers talked about the high cost of higher education in general, and in particular the rising costs of textbooks and support material.

One of the speakers who shall go unnamed, spoke about Open Educational Resources (OER) in the context of so-called open textbooks. In fact, he proclaimed that combining traditional Web-based textbooks together with supplementary Learning Objects is ushering in a new era of OER.  He claimed that this was OER 2.0 — his company’s contribution to the world of affordable textbooks. I have to say that I was pretty surprised to hear someone who I thought should know better be so clueless about the definition of OER and of Learning Objects. But I guess this is what sales and marketing is about. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Learning Objects have been around and defined in various environments and by a number of international standards groups for years. While there are many standards, they all have certain common characteristics. Learning Objects are describable with metadata, are all digital, Web-based, concerned with teaching and learning, etc. One of the most significant characteristics of Learning Objects is that they can be combined to form new and different Learning Objects, but with a new set of metadata. Online textbooks can be characterized as Learning Objects, and they can be combined with other OER support materials that are also Learning Objects. Together they can simply form new Learning Objects, but with a new set of metadata. For example, you can combine a number of course modules (Learning Objects), each with its own set of metadata, to form an online course, a new Learning Object with its own set of metadata. There is nothing OER 2.0 about this.

If we’re really going to talk about OER 2.0, we should be talking about Learning Object standards with metadata that include metrics related to the effectiveness of the Learning Object. Some LO standards already have metadata about subjective user ratings or opinions, but nothing about the measurable effectiveness of the Learning Objects in real learning situations. Certainly this is not an easy task to address, but until effectiveness metrics are a part of the metadata in Learning Objects standards, practitioners will have a tough time knowing whether or not a Learning Object might be of use to them in their own classrooms.

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Searching for OER

January 27, 2015 by

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If you’ve never been to New Zealand, you have to put it on your “bucket list.” It’s the most beautiful country in the world, and it’s no surprise that the Lord of the Rings movies were shot there. They probably had to do the least amount of computing enhancement to their raw film footage than if it had been shot anywhere else in the world. The place is magical!

I’ve been fortunate in the last 14 months to visit New Zealand twice. In December 2013, I attended two conferences in Sydney, Australia, both within one week. The first was the IEEE International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV) where I attended in my role as President Emeritus of the IEEE Computer Society; the second was the Electric Dreams, 30th Ascilite Conference where I was a keynote speaker decrying the then-popularity of MOOCs. From Australia I traveled to New Zealand’s South Island where I toured for about 2 1/2 weeks. (And yes I drove on the left side!)

This year, I attended the 2014 IEEE TALE (Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering) Conference in Wellington on the North Island of New Zealand where I was co-chair of the track on Computer Science and Computer Engineering Education. Following the conference I had the opportunity to explore the North Island, again by car, for about 10 days.

It’s been my experience, in my many years of involvement in multidisciplinary educational technology endeavors that the disciplines of Engineering and Computer Science have seemed to be less interested in the application of technology to learning and teaching than have other disciplines. It’s clear from some of the discussions in which I participated in Australia and New Zealand, that either my perception has been wrong or that the situation is changing. Regardless, it appears to me that the quality of teaching and learning is becoming increasingly important in those disciplines. And of course it’s no surprise that educational technology has an important role to play in that regard. Here are a couple of examples.

The November 2014 issue of the IEEE publication TIEEE Transactions on Education (yes, they have such a publication, and they even have one called IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies) had a special issue on OER. It was one of the best reviews of OER that I’ve read in any discipline-based publication. It’s worth looking it up in your institution’s library to see what I mean. Most colleges and universities have a subscription to IEEE’s digital library, Xplore.

Also while in Wellington, at the TALE Conference, following a session on OER that I had organized, in which I participated, and which had exceptionally good attendance, I was approached by attendees from both India and Hong Kong about the potential for OER in their countries. I am continuing to explore opportunities with them regarding the use of OER through the deployment of MERLOT. It’s too soon to say what will come of all this, but I am optimistic that there’s a trend developing, even in the hard-core disciplines of Engineering and Computer Science. Stay tuned!

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Free the OERs?

December 23, 2014 by

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Over the last few years, the adjective “open” in Open Education Resources (OER) has come to mean “free.”  That is, an OER, for all practical purposes is being interpreted by most people as Web-based materials that are free of cost.  In addition, some (many?) are claiming that for an OER to really be an OER, it must carry a CC BY license.  If these things are in fact true, that would mean that if you find something on the WWW, you don’t have to pay to use it, you can change it any way you like, use it any way you like – whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes, just so long as you give attribution to your source.  Sounds pretty liberal to me.  Maybe too liberal? What do you think?

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New Survey on MERLOT OERs

August 18, 2014 by

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Homilies can be misleading.  “You get what you pay for.”  Or, “The best things in life are free.” Which is it?   Clearly they can’t both be right.  In the case of Open Education Resources (OER), the best things in life really are free.  I am constantly amazed by discussions and debates about the value of OER.  It’s pretty clear to me, and I can’t understand why it’s not clear to everyone, that OER is a free resource that anyone can voluntarily use, or not.  If you discover something and don’t like it or think it is inappropriate for your needs, you can just ignore it.  This is especially true if you are searching MERLOT ( where you can often tell something about the quality and appropriateness of the learning materials that you find there.

A few years ago I taught an online course for Sloan-C (now known as Online Learning Consortium).  One of the course topics concerned the use of repositories such as MERLOT’s, for instructors to discover and use OER.  When I later asked the students of the course, all of whom were fulltime instructors at colleges and universities, if they found the course valuable, almost all said yes.  When I asked them if they intended to use OER repositories in their own teaching, they were more equivocal.  They told me that the felt they didn’t have enough time to integrate discovered OER into their everyday teaching activities.  This is a pretty sad state of affairs because most of us, for whatever reasons, often cop out, and because of time constraints or just plain laziness adopt a course textbook that will wind up costing students $100 or more.  This is particularly sad, since there are so many OERs available for free that would cost the students practically nothing.  MERLOT contains, for example hundreds of Open Access textbooks that would satisfy many course requirements.  Even when a conventional textbook is adopted, the MERLOT ISBN Finder can be used by an instructor or even a student to find supplementary OERs related to an adopted textbook.

If you are a user of MERLOT OER, I invite you to participate in a new survey co-sponsored by MERLOT and the UK Open University’s OER Research Hub in which we are trying to learn about the usefulness of OER.  What are your thoughts about the usefulness of MERLOT OER?  Participate in this survey and help us to cast some light on how we can make OER more useful and cost effective for both ourselves and our students. All comments are welcome!

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Lecturing to the Choir – An Abuse of Instructional Technology

June 10, 2014 by

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If you were to define a continuous scale of worst to best teaching modalities, I suspect that at one end, and you can figure out which, you’d probably find large lectures.  At the other end (the “best” end, in case you missed it), you would find something like personal tutors.  The characteristics of each are pretty clear, and the pros and cons of each are also pretty clear, but let’s recap some of them anyway.

Let’s start with the “bad” end – the lecture end.  Clearly, the best part of lectures is that on aper/student basis, the costs are relatively fixed, and in many ways relatively low.  By ‘costs’ I mean the cost to the institution delivering the instruction.  In fact, the larger the class, the less the per/student cost.  Of course that cost is totally unrelated to the cost to the student.  That cost, normally called tuition and fees, often doesn’t seem to be related at all to institutional instructional delivery costs.  Sometimes, depending on the institution, it might even seem that student costs are inversely proportional to instructional delivery costs.  But that’s a topic for another day. 

So, by some ridiculous reasoning, considering only fiscal matters, it behooves an institution to deliver as much instruction as possible via large lectures.  But what about quality of instruction, or perhaps we should ask, what about student learning outcomes?  I would argue that we don’t really know.  Aside from those ridiculous student evaluations, based on our cumulative millions of person-hours of experience lecturing, most of us, both instructors and students probably agree that this instructional mode belongs at the “bad” end of our spectrum. 

So let’s look at the other end of our spectrum, the “good” end.  That’s where a single tutor teaches a single student in real time, for however long it takes for the student to learn whatever is being taught.  In general, and aside from idiosyncratic matters such as personality clashes between student and mentor, this is probably the best way to ensure that a student will learn what is being taught.  After all, in a private, personal and individualized instructional setting, a good tutor should be monitoring, understanding, and adapting the instruction in real time, depending on many, many different factors, most of which are a function of student behavior in the instructional setting. 

Now from a fiscal standpoint, it’s just common sense that one-to-one instruction for any particular instructional objective is much more costly than the one-to-many model of lectures.  So all in all, the “good” end of our spectrum is characterized by better learning at higher costs, and the other end, at best, by questionable learning at lower costs,

Now if we were in the business of delivering instruction in the least costly manner possible, without real concern for learning outcomes, certainly we’d choose practices and methodologies that characterize the ‘bad’ end of our spectrum.  On the other hand, if we were in the business of delivering the best instruction possible without much concern for fiscal matters, we’d focus on the other end of the spectrum.

So if that’s the case, why are so many institutions that are charged with educating and preparing our citizens of the future, jumping on online technologies that are characterized by the ‘bad’ end of the spectrum, and not selecting those that characterize the good end?  It’s not like they don’t have what to choose from.   Let’s consider the biggest, “bad” end, lecture bandwagon of them all – MOOCs.  Delivering online instruction to hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of students at a time is clearly the worst imaginable instructional practice.  If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have such incredible drop out and failure rates.    So what’s the alternative, at the “good” end?  It’s something called adaptive learning, or what online teaching and learning was meant to be in the first place.

When all this online stuff started in the middle of the 20th Century, all of it focused on the individual as a learner.  In fact, it was called “individualized instruction.”  Why would anyone want to use technology to emulate the worst teaching model available?  But through the decades, and because of the huge and complex effort required to do a good job designing and delivering individualized online instruction, we got lazy and began to opt for group-oriented LMS-delivered lectures.  And now with MOOCs, we’ve taken that bad model and made it even worse – using technology to lecture to thousands and thousands of students at a time.

The argument in favor of MOOC’s that seems to be prevalent is that at a relatively low instructional delivery cost,  if we enroll a class of 1,000,000, and get a 3% success rate, then 30,000 students will have been successful.  But what about the other 970,000 students?  Oh right.  Those students have now been exposed to the brilliance of the lecturer(s) responsible for the course, and without the MOOC, that would never have been the case.  On the other hand, as data are becoming available, we are learning more and more about the so-called successful students.  It turns out that most of them are nothing like the kinds of undergraduate students’ colleges and universities should be trying to reach.  In fact, most of those ‘students’  already have degrees, and have somehow managed to be academically successful before they signed on to their first MOOC lecture.

Is this a responsible approach to delivering quality instruction? Is this what higher education should be focusing on?  I don’t think so.  How are we using technology to improve the learning of undergraduate students?  We aren’t.  We are simply delivering instruction without much consideration of what it’s achieving.  And all that is because it’s easier to lecture than to tutor.

Who ever said that teaching and learning should be easy?  Difficult as it is, I think we need to return to where online learning started – to technology-based individualized, self-paced instruction.  We need to use technology to emulate the best of our teaching methodologies – the tutor, rather than the worst – the lecture.  Thankfully to help us, we still have brave frontiersmen who are fighting the fight with the development of adaptive systems.  These systems use new technologies such as cloud and big data to adapt, in real time, online instruction to suit the learner and the learning situation.  This stuff isn’t easy, but it’s got a better chance of doing the job right – especially if we care more about quality than cost.  I welcome your comments on this subject. 

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Open Access – Continued and Revisited

April 3, 2014 by

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Open Access – Continued and Revisited

In my previous blog about OA, I was trying to be as succinct as possible, providing information about the topic – which, as I have noted before, should not be confused with Open Education Resources (OER).  I was aware when I wrote the blog, that because the definitions of Green and Gold can be a bit “fuzzy” around the edges, that I might get responses regarding the simplified definitions that I had provided.  Sure enough, I did receive a couple of personal and friendly emails, and the folks who sent them have kindly agreed to allow me to republish them verbatim, both rectifying and clarifying some of what I wrote.   It’s thanks to our shared philosophies of “openness” that we can all benefit from the interplay of ideas, comments, and suggestions such as these to help us to build an increasingly strong, shared intellectual community.

1.  From Seb Schmoller, Sheffield, UK

I picked up on because when I was CEO of the UK’s Association for Learning Technology I was responsible for transitioning our journal Research in Learning Technology (RLT) from conventional to Open Access.

I must say I was surprised not to see Research in Learning Technology listed in your post.  But that is not the main point of this email. More importantly, I was much more surprised to see journals listed in your post e.g. and that are not Open Access journals in the currently understood sense of the term.

Essentially, these journals have recently started to allow authors if they wish to pay a publication fee, resulting in that particular article being openly available. In contrast, Open Access journals proper, like RLT, make all their content freely available usually under a Creative Commons license, in RLT’s case using the most open license, namely CC-BY.  The do this either by requiring all authors to pay a publication fee, or, as in RLT’s case by not charging a publication fee in the first place.

Kind regards, Seb

2.  From Caroline Sutton, Co-Founder/ Publisher, Co-Action Publishing

As the Past President of OASPA (Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association) and as the co-founder of Co-Action Publishing, an Open Access Scholarly Publishing house, which publishes Research in Learning Technology, UNIPED, Education Inquiry, Medical Education Online and Journal of European Continuing Medical Education, I hope you won’t mind my reaching out to you.

Your blog item confuses hybrid offerings and open access publishing (gold). Gold is free access as well as re-use rights (at least for non-commercial purposes) immediately upon publication. The author retains copyright, or at least the non-commercial copyright in the case of a Creative Commons Non-Commercial license being applied. Open Access publishing (gold) entails making the article/journal freely available immediately upon publication. This is the final published version. This can also be re-used according to the license conditions.

For some journals this is financed through article processing charges (APCs), also known as publication fees. In this case the author would receive an invoice. In some cases an institution will have an agreement with a publisher and the bill will go straight to an institution or funder.  In other cases, authors receive no invoices. This might be because the journal is supported by a grant, or for Research in Learning Technology, for instance, the society pays the full costs of publishing the journal. In this case the journal is both free to use and free to publish in (and free to re-use as long as the original source is attributed).

In contrast, the journals you list offer a “hybrid” solution. This means that an author can choose to pay a fee to free up that specific article, whilst the journal otherwise is under a subscription or licensing situation. What one buys when paying this fee can vary from the article being published under a creative commons license that allows free re-use in addition to use, to the article simply being available immediately to be read. These conditions vary from publisher to publisher.

Co-Action Publishing is a firm believer in making educational research open access. Our journals provide immediate free access and re-use of content upon publication.  Thank you for your time in reading my comment above. I am happy to answer any questions you might have about open access publishing.

Kind regards, Caroline

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A Word About Open Access Educational Technology Journals

March 17, 2014 by

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Last November I blogged about the true meaning of the word “open” as it relates to OER (Open Education Resources), Open Source (software), and Open Access (journals, journal articles and textbooks).  Today I want to expand a bit on the concept of Open Access (OA), and also provide a list of useful journal resources that are, in one way or another, Open Access.

If you want to know about the history of (or anything else about) OA, I suggest you reread my blog, Is it Really Open, or Google the term and choose from the 2.2 billion hits (in 0.22 seconds).  One of the other things you will probably discover is that OA can be pretty complicated.   For example, there are different levels of Open Access – Gold, Green, and some argue Platinum.

Open Access Platinum level means that the material is free to use and available from the publisher, as soon as the publisher makes it public – similar to MERLOT’s Journal of Learning and Teaching (JOLT).

Gold level material is usually also published by a real publisher – as opposed to self-published, but it’s usually not available for free the day it’s published.  So if you want to access Gold level OA material for free, you’ll have to wait 12-18 months (the “embargo” period) after it’s been first published.  If you want it sooner, you can buy it or subscribe to the journal.  How and when such material becomes free depends on the policies of the publisher.  Also, authors who choose to publish this way may have to give up their copyright to the publisher.  When that happens, the publisher can let the author make a not-final, “preprint” version of the paper immediately available on a server other than the publisher’s.   Many, if not most of IEEE’s recent journal articles are available this way.

To complicate all this a little more, some Gold publishers let authors pay a fee, after a submission has been reviewed and approved for publication, to forgo the embargo period, allowing the material to be freely available the day it’s published.  That is, for a fee paid by the author, these days it’s usually between $2K-$3K (or whatever the market will bear), a Gold paper is made immediately available to readers for free, somewhat like Platinum OA.

Green OA is like a green light given by a publisher to allow the author to immediately post their work on a server other than the publisher’s, for unrestricted free access.  So this is similar to Platinum in that it’s available right away, but not on the publisher’s server.

On top of all this is the matter of licensing.  Who owns the article or text that is made available as Open Access?  Traditionally, authors own what they write unless or until they sign away (transfer) the copyright to someone else – usually a publisher.  The transfer terms and restrictions on distribution can vary, and are a matter between the author and the publisher.  For true Green OA, there is no copyright transfer; authors own their material and do what they want with it.  In any case, like OER, OA materials, when posted online should carry a Creative Commons license informing readers how they can use or reuse the material.  The license may be issued by the author or the publisher, depending on who finally owns the copyright.

Below is a list of educational technology journals that claim to be Open Access.  Because it’s hard for publishers of OA to generate the kinds of revenue they need to stay in business, there’s no guarantee that any in the list will be there when you go to find them.

American Journal of Distance Education
Asian Journal of Distance Education
British Journal of Educational Technology
European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning
HETS Online Journal
International Journal of ePortfolio
International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning
Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN)
Journal of Distance Education
Journal of Educational Technology & Society
The Journal of Educators Online
Journal of Interactive Online Learning
Journal of Instructional Pedagogies
JOLT – Journal of Online Learning and Teaching
Journal of Virtual Worlds and Education
Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration
The Texas Journal of Distance Learning
International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning (all issues)
DEANZ – The Journal of Distance Learning

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